More than 100 residents of the Oxford Hills School District meet Monday to discuss the possibility of closing three elementary schools in West Paris, Harrison and Waterford, replacing one in Norway and keeping four others under a districtwide consolidation plan. The meeting was called by West Paris officials and held at the Paris Fire Station on Western Avenue. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

PARIS — The majority of those speaking at a community meeting Monday night expressed strong opposition to the possibility of closing four elementary schools in the Oxford Hills School District because hometown schools provide better education for students.

“There is not a person who advocates for consolidation that can guarantee us test scores will be better as a result of consolidation,” former longtime school board Director Dale Piirainen of West Paris told the crowd of 110 people attending the gathering at the Paris Fire Station on Western Avenue.

He was one of about two dozen people who spoke at the meeting called by West Paris officials in the wake of the abrupt closing of Agnes Gray Elementary School in West Paris last February. The meeting was open to residents of Maine School Administrative District 17, including school board members and elected officials from the eight district towns.

A number of meetings have been held since Superintendent Heather Manchester, with board support, ordered the 1800s two-story West Paris school closed immediately after an architectural firm inspected it and said it was unsafe for occupancy.

Among the issues cited by LaVallee Brensinger Architects were inadequate fire protection and functional emergency exits, outdated and poorly functioning plumbing and electrical systems, a leaky roof, exterior and interior stairwells that are not up to code, and a boiler that is years beyond its serviceable life.

Since then, the firm presented six options to the district. The two under consideration are:

Advertisement

• Keeping the eight elementary schools in Norway, Paris, Oxford, Otisfield, Harrison, Hebron, Waterford and West Paris.

• Consolidating the eight into five, including replacing Guy E. Rowe Elementary School in Norway with a new building and closing Agnes Gray school in West Paris, Waterford Memorial School and Harrison Elementary School and moving those students to the five others.

Daecia Dow, who grew up in West Paris and attended Agnes Gray Elementary School, said, “The woods raised me.”

She said there is a stark difference between attending a school with ample space surrounding it and a close-knit community of educators and students.

“Consolidation is not what’s best for kids,” she said. “Other schools borrow programming from Agnes Gray, and they don’t do as good a job.”

Dow addressed the prospect of consolidation from her experience as an educational technician and interventionist in Guy E. Rowe Elementary School’s day treatment program, working with 130 students across eight classrooms.

Advertisement

She said even a staff of special educators at the largest elementary school in the district does not guarantee quality education for students who need it the most.

Explaining that the federal American Rescue Plan Act money covering her position has run out, after the end of the school year she will no longer be employed at Rowe.

Dale Piirainen of West Paris, a former longtime director of the Oxford Hills School District, speaks Monday night in opposition consolidating the eight elementary schools into five during a meeting called by West Paris officials and held at the Paris Fire Station on Western Avenue. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

“Agnes Gray is a leader in outdoor education,” Dow said, listing the opportunities students have because of its forest, outdoor and yurt classrooms. ”

“You can see it,” she said. “Rowe has four garden beds and 400 students. At Agnes Gray, there are 16 garden beds for 120 students.”

Victoria Carr, an Oxford Hills Middle School student who attended Agnes Gray for seven years, described how much she valued her time there and how difficult it can be for students to be seen in crowded corridors, especially those who require extra attention.

Carr’s mother, Heather Carr, lamented that Agnes Gray is losing valued faculty and staff due to the upheaval and uncertain future.

Advertisement

“Shame on us for our lack of involvement” on this, Austin Cantrell of Harrison said. “We need our community schools. We need to force transparency.”

“I’ll keep this short,” state Rep. John Andrews of South Paris said. “If you consolidate, you will be forever changing the identity and culture of the Oxford Hills. And that is not something that should be done lightly.”

Six of the 22 school directors attended: Donna Marshall and Veronica Poland, both of West Paris, Diana Olsen of Otisfield, Judy Green of Waterford, Peter Wood of Norway and Chairman Troy Ripley of Paris.

Selectmen and town managers from West Paris, Paris, Harrison and Oxford attended.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.